Helping referees cope with pressure: “It is not magic”

FEATURE: Former THW Kiel coach turned mental coach, Johann Ingi Gunnarsson, helps the 12 pairs of referees at the EHF EURO 2018 develop their “mental muscles”

Former THW Kiel coach Johann Ingi Gunnarsson is now a psychologist, working with EHF referees at the EURO. Photo: Uros Hocevar

More and more athletes are embracing the idea of developing their minds – and the handball world is no exception, as it constantly shifts and evolves with new ideas. Working with a mental coach would have been unheard of 20 years ago, but has become the norm, with players and coaches realising it is not only their physical strength that must be finetuned.

Enter Johann Ingi Gunnarsson, a pioneer in the field, who has been helping players and referees improve their mental strength for the past 30 years.

63-year-old Gunnarsson was coach of German powerhouse THW Kiel between 1982 and 1986, but left with his mind set on pursuing what he liked most: psychology.

“When I was a coach in Iceland and Germany, I started studying psychology, because that was one of the important factors in the game we were not paying attention to.

“Back in the coaching days, I saw many, many players that were training properly, but when it came to the games, they were nervous, they choked facing the pressure. Therefore, I started to get to the bottom of the problem, by getting my degree in psychology,” remembered Gunnarsson.

The three Cs and the importance of breathing

Now, the Icelandic is a mental coach for players and referees. He has managed the mental preparation of the Men’s EHF EURO referees since 2012, making the tournament in Croatia his fourth in a row.

“What I am trying to tell the referees is to embrace pressure; that pressure is something we want to have, we need to have, in order to be taken to the next level. The referees have been improving a lot in the past few years and I am proud to be a part of them growing,” says Gunnarsson.

There is no feedback regarding the referees’ decisions on court from the Icelandic mental coach. But you can often spot him in the official EHF EURO 2018 hotel, sitting with referees who are seeking advice.

“I like to compare the brain to a muscle. The mental training helps build the mental muscle, as I like to describe it. We can train concentration, how to cope with stress, how to build our confidence,” says Gunnarsson.

Pressure can be experienced differently by an individual therefore, Gunnarsson has a toolbox of exercises than can suit anyone.

One exercise instructs referees that in moments of extreme pressure, they should hold their breath and count to four. “Just like that, the pressure is gone. You feel more relaxed. Talking to yourself and saying things to encourage yourself to instill the thought that you are in the game also helps,” Gunnarsson explains.

Referees must know the Rules of the Game by heart, and Gunnarsson states that they should also integrate the rule of the three Cs: “Composure, confidence and concentration. If you know this rule, then you will be composed, you will feel competent and you will take your concentration to the next level. You must say: Yes, I can!”

“Referees are using my pieces of advice”

Mental preparation is becoming more prominent in handball, with more players and referees trying to gain an edge in this way.

“There is a lot of talking with professional players in Germany and in Scandinavia on Skype, because they say that discussing their thoughts and the need for psychological improvement once a month helps them a lot,” says Gunnarsson.

His opinion is very clear: the mental aspect will be more and more important in the future, because it should be a normal part of the game. “It is not magic. It should not be seen as magic. This is like any other massage or recovering after a difficult game.”

As the competition at the EHF EURO 2018 reaches the business end, the pressure on referees increases – and Gunnarsson is pleased to see they are using his advice as the tournament progresses:

 “I am happy to help every time a referee needs me, because I see that they are using my pieces of advice, and I am always happy to see my work respected.

“I will not tell them what to do specifically, because each person should have the possibility to decide. But I can tell you I have seen a lot of improvement over the last six years.”

written by Adrian Costeiu / cg